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New Book on Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement

My good friend James Horrox has finally released his masterful work A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement. Basing his research largely on newly-translated letters, diaries and essays by key figures and participants, James Horrox uncovers a deep and explicitly anarchist strain running through the movement’s early days. Not only does this illuminate a neglected aspect of Jewish history, it takes serious issue with Marxist and other historians, especially those who see the kibbutzim primarily as progenitors of the Israeli State. At the same time, it depicts anarchism as both an inspiring utopian ideology and a viable social practice.

cover of anarchism in the kibbutz movement

I had the privilege of writing the book’s foreword, which I reproduce here.

Foreword

Fierce opposition to Zionism, and to the capitalist-military machine oppressing millions under its flag, is only emboldened by the encounter with the betrayed dreams of liberation and solidarity that lie shattered in its dustbin. For there is no question that things could have turned out very differently in this land, had the designs of the young Jewish men and women who landed on these shores during the first decades of the twentieth century come to fruition.

The communards of the early Kibbutz settlements in Palestine hardly shared what Emma Goldman called “the dream of capitalist Jewry the world over for a Jewish state machinery to protect the privileges of the few against the many”. What carried them to Palestine was rather the desire to build here a classless society, a “commune of communes” based on self-management, equality and Jewish-Arab cooperation. At stake was nothing less than the opportunity to transform the Jewish mobilization around Palestine into a project for the social liberation of all peoples, a project that could only be achieved under the banner of stateless socialism.

Yet the defining influence of anarchist currents in the early Kibbutz movement has been one of official Zionist historiography’s best-kept secrets. In the retroactive absorption of the communards’ experience into Israel’s nation-building myth, only a few selective manoeuvres were necessary in order to obliviate its aspects which would have proved too subversive for the new state’s unifying republican ethos. Thus the first Kibbutzniks’ personal sacrifices, the emotional intensity of their relationships and their revival of Hebrew as a spoken language were all played up as paragons of dedication, and mobilised to generate a sense of historical debt. But other elements – especially their antagonism towards private capital, their calls for bi-nationalism, and the feminist struggles of women in the communes – were all left out of the historical accounts, school textbooks and public rituals, and excluded from the packaged narrative served up to subsequent generations.

It is against this background of induced collective amnesia that A Living Revolution makes its vital contribution. James Horrox has drawn on archival research, interviews and political analysis to thread together the story of a period all but gone from living memory, presenting it for the first time to an English-reading audience. These pages bring to life the most radical and passionate voices that shaped the second and third waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine, and also encounters those contemporary projects working to revive the spirit of the Kibbutz as it was intended to be, despite, and because of their predecessors’ fate.

The early Kibbutz experience is of special interest to anarchists today, since the early twentieth century communes were the first large-scale movement emphasising the constructive, creative and spiritual aspects of anarchism – aspects which have become central to the movement in recent decades. Class antagonism was certainly present between the bourgeois Jewish owners of the first-wave colonies and the young new immigrants who initially sought work there. But the first communes were founded precisely in an attempt to carve out autonomous spaces of production that would subvert the initial stages of capitalist accumulation in Palestine. Rather than building up to an insurrection or a general strike – a strategy relevant to revolutionizing existing, mature capitalist societies – the communards sought to nip capitalism’s emergence in the bud, by constructing alternatives on the ground that would snatch the ground from under capitalist Jewry and take the lead in shaping the new society’s economic and social structure. The period between 1904 and 1924 marked a unique historical crossroads at which such a manoeuvre made perfect sense.

With this perspective in mind, there is a point to be made concerning the ambivalent response which A Living Revolution, by its very premise, may raise among those who (like ourselves) are committed to ending all occupation, militarism and social injustice in Israel/Palestine today. Unfortunately, the Zionist account has become so pervasive that the early Kibbutzim are almost universally seen as nothing but predecessors of the Israeli state, and therefore as fully partaking in responsibility for its eventual crimes against Palestinians and Jews alike. On such a view, the idea of holding them up to the light of Kropotkin and Landauer takes on an incongruous, even disingenuous air.

Yet this view only makes sense if one accepts the premises of black-and-white political correctness that pervade the contemporary Left. There is certainly room to question the validity of applying anti-colonial hindsight to people that any progressive would otherwise consider economic migrants or refugees. Rather it would seem that queasiness about the premise of A Living Revolution has nothing to do with historical impartiality, and everything to do with the fear of tarnishing anarchism’s good name (an oxymoron if there ever was one) by its association with early Zionism.

Yet it is a grave mistake to interpret, let alone pass judgment on, the efforts of the past in light of the injustices of the present. Such an approach partakes of a retroactive historical fatalism, one that has no place in the analysis a movement that declares: “Anything can happen”. Historical movement is never deterministic. There is never a single, linear and inevitable course of affairs charted out in advance. What would have happened in Palestine had the October revolution been more successful in spreading to central Europe? Or had Jewish workers more effectively resisted the British-sponsored takeover of their institutions by Ben Gurion and his men? Or, for that matter, had Hitler been killed in the Great War? Anything could have happened, just as it can today.

Acknowledging this is crucial if we are to encounter and assess the early Kibbutz movement on its own terms, and from the perspectives of its own protagonists, as A Living Revolution so successfully does. Let their story and the sense of an open future inspire all those who struggle for freedom and justice on this Earth.

Uri Gordon
Kibbutz Lotan, May Day 2008
www.anarchyalive.com